Conciliar New Spiritual Communities become scandal magnets

They were the stars of the French Church: the founders of the New Spiritual Communities. Regina Heyder introduces a book that describes their fall into the abyss ("la chute des étoiles"). The Saturday review on


See also my "Entering the strange world of the Neo-catechumenal Way" and "The Catholic Integrated Community" and "New Religious order closed after decades of abuse".  Coming soon the description of an interesting day that I spent in France after accidentally stumbling across the Mass of one of these communities.  I felt the heresy in my stomach.

And as for WYD, a very nest for such heresies to be nourished. (I will be updating the older articles shortly to remove broken links etc. but there is much there all the same).  Generally, I will be doing some systematic research on all these communities as it is so indicative of all that has gone wrong.

The treachery of the Spiritual Directors

The article continues

Only rarely is foreign-language theological literature translated into German but the subject of spiritual and sexual abuse in Catholic communities seems to suggest exceptions: In July last year, Aschendorff published "Verheißung und Verrat. Geistlicher Missbrauch in Orden und Gemeinschaften der katholischen Kirche" (Promise and Betrayal. Spiritual Abuse in Orders and Communities of the Catholic Church), whose author is Dysmas de Lassus, Prior General of the Carthusians.[1] A few days ago, Herder published the volume to be reviewed here, also translated from French, "Der Verrat der Seelenführer. Power and Abuse in New Spiritual Communities.[2] The author is the French journalist Céline Hoyeau, the editor of the German edition is the theologian and vulnerability researcher Hildegund Keul, who in her inspiring introduction analyses the many forms of abuse from the perspective of the vulnerability discourse. Johanna Beck contributes a personal afterword. The title illustration shows impressively what is at stake: the hand of a puppet player with play strings can be seen. What is not visible, however, is the puppet or person hanging on these strings: Manipulation and spiritual as well as sexual abuse in the New Spiritual Communities turn those affected into puppets whose movements, indeed whose existence, depend entirely on the will of the perpetrators. Those affected describe a loss of self and speak of depersonalisation.

Mass convictions of abuse

Céline Hoyeau, born in 1977, she first dealt with the "betrayal of fathers", which was to become the title of her book, for the French daily La Croix in October 2019. These fathers, and in some cases also mothers, are founders of the New Spiritual Communities (NSCs), whose activity was expected to bring about a new springtime in the Church, especially during the pontificate of John Paul II, and who today are convicted en masse of spiritual and sexual abuse. Marie-Dominique Philippe, Thomas Philippe, Jean Vanier, Alix Parmentier, Ephraïm and Pierre-Marie Delfieux are some of the known perpetrators. Their victims are members of the NSC, where they were at the mercy of the abuse of power and exploitation by the founders. Where the widespread spiritual abuse further manifested itself in sexual abuse, the victims are primarily adult women, and in some cases adult men.

Deceased or time-barred

In terms of criminal law, very few perpetrators could be convicted because they were already deceased or the statute of limitations had expired. Under canon law, however, some founders were laicised, deprived of their offices in the communities or permanently excluded from religious life. One exception is the Dominican Thomas Philippe, who had to leave his foundation Living Water (L'eau vive) in 1952 because of allegations of sexual abuse and was condemned by the Holy Office in 1956 for "false mysticism". The punishments included a ban on hearing confessions, spiritual guidance and staying in women's convents. Thomas Philippe's foster son Jean Vanier was ordered (in vain) to break off all contact with Thomas Philippe and to distance himself from him. Particularly bitter: The founding of the Ark as a community of people with and without mental disabilities in 1964 by Jean Vanier and Thomas Philippe now appears to be a manoeuvre to secure the latter a regular place in the church. The recently published investigation report makes public that layman Jean Vanier also sexually abused at least 25 adult women in clergy companionship.[3]

Hoyeau knows the NSC from both a professional and a biographical perspective, because as a young person in the 1990s she herself met some of the founders who were considered "holy men" at the time. The starting point was an experience Doris Reisinger calls "spiritual neglect" - neither parish nor school chaplaincy could "nourish" Hoyeau's faith or satisfy her religious longing (cf. Pages 33-40).[4] The consequence was a kind of spirituality tourism to the centres run by the NSC. Hoyeau's list is impressive: retreats at the Foyers of Charity (Foyers de Charité) and at the Community of the Beatitudes (Communauté des Béatitudes) (Cathcon: see my "Never ending turmoil of the Community of the Beatitudes), a youth festival of the New Way (Chemin Neuf), Sunday Masses at the Monastic Communities of Jerusalem in Paris and in a parish served by the Community of St. John (Communauté St. Jean), World Youth Days. The connection with the NSM enabled her to have the religious adventure she longed for: Hoyeau worked in a hospice in Benares for two months and lived in Rome as a volunteer for three months during the Holy Year 2000 to host a youth programme for Radio Vatican.

(Cathcon: Sister Albertine from the Chemin Neuf is a social media influencer!)

Strictly hierarchical and hardly any co-determination

Repeatedly, Hoyeau asks how this widespread spiritual and sexual abuse could have come about in the individual NSCs. She is unable to provide a satisfactory answer - the frightening fact remains that the founders perverted the Gospel they claimed to be helping to spread. Nevertheless, it is worth taking a look at the facets mentioned by Hoyeau. On the one hand, there is the personal charisma and the often plausible founding impulses. At the same time, the founders operate in a time that is sceptical about rules and conventions, and they know how to take advantage of this by dispensing themselves - and occasionally also the members of their communities - from church rules. Tried and tested rules such as the separation of the internal forum and the external forum are circumvented; the NSCs are strictly hierarchical and hardly know any rights of co-determination - why should they, since the founders know that they are legitimised by mystical experiences or the Holy Spirit.  (See priest who wants to marry an incarnation of the Holy Spirit)

Specific situation of the French Church

In addition, there is the specific situation of the French Church: in "la France, pays de mission", as a famous book title from 1943 reads,[5] after the Second World War, on the one hand secularisation tendencies are perceptible and on the other hand an "apostolic dynamic", for which, for example, the experiment of the worker priests ended in 1954 by Pope Pius XII and the activities of Catholic Action stand for. Nevertheless, a continuous decline in religious practice can be observed, which accelerated again after the Second Vatican Council. Hoyeau cites, for example, the declaration on religious freedom Dignitatis humanae, which left personal religious practice to individual choice. Whether this is due to ignorance or an intentional misunderstanding of a Council declaration, the negative view of the Council is one of the legitimising figures of most founders.

Cathcon: Simply not true; if they had a negative view of the Council they would have returned to traditional forms of religious life. What is being described here is emphatically not traditional.   Some are conservative-inclined but conservative Catholics define themselves on acceptance to the Second Vatican Council. 

Saving the Church

Those who want to "save the Church" must present its crisis as comprehensively as possible (cf. pp. 61-65). He must discredit the post-conciliar liturgy (and in doing so deliberately overlook the fact that pre-conciliar Mass celebrations were by no means always uplifting) in order to emphasise the holiness and beauty of his own, often Byzantine-inspired liturgies. The founders have a perfect command of this keyboard - and yet they refer to the aggiornamento of the Council, which they claim to live in a new and radical way. It is therefore possible that it is neither general secularisation tendencies nor the reforms and break-offs in the Church that play into the NGG's cards, but rather a fundamentally dualistic, polarised perception of social and ecclesial realities that is effective among those responsible in the Church as well as in the expectations of believers. Time and again, it can be seen how much the hierarchy and the faithful wanted to believe in these figures of light. Accordingly, it would be a church and socio-political task today to learn to live with ambiguities.

Support from John Paul II

The founders enjoyed the support of John Paul II, who relied on the Movimenti as a whole for his project of the new evangelisation. His support guaranteed their catholicity; they in turn offered not only masses of enthusiastic young people at World Youth Days, but also numerous vocations to the priesthood or religious life. Hoyeau emphasises several times that these owed themselves in part to immense psychological and spiritual pressure (cf. pp. 84-86).

Hidden patterns

The look to France is more than relevant for the German Church, because the "hidden patterns" of abuse are effective in the world church.[6] In her instructive introduction, Hildegund Keul lists numerous German-speaking movements and communities that are also confronted with allegations of abuse today. She shows that the reflex to protect one's own institution - be it the church, be it the community - by covering up, increases the damage immensely when the abuse finally does become public ("vulnerability paradox"). Vulnerability research can contribute another insight: spirituality in the NGG involves radically opening oneself to a soul guide, and it is precisely this that makes a person vulnerable at their core. If the initially helpful soul guidance tips over and the accompanying person exploits the weakness of the person concerned and becomes vulnerable (hurtful), the person concerned has no defences at all.

Legitimisation of the abusive founders

Johanna Beck contributes a personal afterword to the German translation. As a former member of the Catholic Scouts of Europe (KPE), she is herself a victim of spiritual and sexual abuse. (See Cathcon's article about the questions surrounding their founder) At the end, she asks questions that also move Hildegund Keul and the author of this article: What role do mysticism and especially the "mystical deception" of a Marthe Robin play in legitimising the abusive founders?[7] And how large was the reach of the networks of Marthe Robin, the Philippe Brothers and Jean Vanier? Johanna Beck calls for further theological, historical, sociological and psychological analyses (253). Céline Hoyeau's volume, edited in German by Hildegund Keul, now offers groundbreaking impulses for this.

Dr. Regina Heyder is a theologian specialising in church history and a lecturer at the Theological-Pastoral Institute in Mainz.

[1] Dysmas de Lassus, Promise and Betrayal. Geistlicher Missbrauch in Orden und Gemeinschaften der katholischen Kirche- Spiritual abuse in orders and communities of the Catholic Church translated into German by Dominica Fericks, Münster 2022.

[2] Céline Hoyeau, The Betrayal of Soul Leaders. Power and Abuse in New Spiritual Communities, translated from the French by Gabriele Nolte, ed. by Hildegund Keul. Freiburg 2023 - Page numbers in the text refer to this volume. French original edition: La trahision des pères. Emprise et abus des fondateurs de communautés nouvelles, Montrouge: Bayard 2021.

[3] See Bernard Granger et al, Emprise et abus, enquête sur Thomas Philippe Jean Vanier et L'Arche (1950-2019). The investigation report in English and translations of the summary in five languages are available at source. At the same time as the enquiry report, another publication evaluating the Dominicans' archives was published: Tangi Cavalin, L'Affaire. Les dominicains face au scandale des frères Philippe - The Affair. The Dominicans and the scandal of the Philippe brothers, Paris: Cerf 2023.

[4] Cf. Doris Wagner, Spiritueller Missbrauch in der katholischen Kirche - Spiritual abuse in the Catholic Church, Freiburg 2019.

[5] Henri Godin/ Yvan Daniel, La France pays de mission?- France, Mission country? Paris: Cerf 1943.

[6] Cf. Barbara Haslbeck/Magdalena Hürten/Ute Leimgruber, Missbrauchsmuster - hidden patterns of abuse, in source of 20.12.2022.

[7] Cf. Conrad De Meester, La fraude mystique de Marthe Robin. Dieu saura écrire droit sur des lignes courbes - The mystical fraud of Marthe Robin. God will know how to write straight on curved lines, Paris 2020. This posthumously published work shows that Marthe Robin borrowed from around 30 mystics but passed them off as her own experiences. The chronology of her diaries is also inconsistent. Marthe Robin, inspirer of the Foyers de Charité, was involved in numerous other community foundations. The homepage names a total of ten communities, but in the meantime omits a reference to the Communauté St Jean.



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